· Portugal’s stunning Sintra ·
Deep inside the forested mountains of the Portuguese Riviera lies the tiny resort town of Sintra. Set amongst lush vegetation and just miles from the Atlantic coast, Sintra is a magical place and perhaps one of the most underrated destinations in Europe.
The little town, with steep, winding, cobblestoned streets, is truly out of a fairy tale. Layers of history and natural beauty, castles and palaces in every direction (literally): there’s something for everyone. Only a 47-minute train ride from Lisbon, it’s often billed as a daytrip, and while totally doable, one day just wouldn’t do Sintra justice. The two main attractions, the Castle of the Moors and the Palace of Pena, easily take a full day and there are other sights worth a stop, not to mention the charm of the little town in itself. Even two nights in the most charming boutique hotel wasn’t quite enough.
That’s because Sintra is so rich with historical sights. The 8thcentury Castle of the Moors overlooks the town, lit up at night ensuring that it’s always present. A local bus can be taken from Sintra up to the entrance of either the castle or the palace for just a few Euros. While it’s tempting to hike up the mountain to the castle, you’ll do enough walking and it is significantly steep. If you want to walk it, do so going down when you’ve finished sightseeing – you won’t enjoy yourself if you hike up. A combination ticket can be bought for both the Castle of the Moors and the Palace of Pena. Buy this at the castle where there’s not quite so much a crowd – you’ll be able to jump the line when you make your way to the palace.
Before even reaching the Castle of the Moors, you begin to see how magical the area is: walking through a lush green forest with ruins from various aspects of the castle, is something out of movie. Finally, you’ll reach the ruins of the castle where you can explore the castle walls getting views of the town and surrounding area. On clear days, you can see out to the Atlantic Ocean. While just stone ruins, who doesn’t love running around a castle, especially when it has stunning views? Here, you can catch your first glimpse of the brightly colored Palace of Pena on a neighboring hilltop.
After exploring the castle, you’ll head back down to the entrance only to head back up the side of the road to the Palace of Pena. Again, you’ll wander up through lush vegetation and hints at what’s to come before turning a corner and having the Palace looming above you. Built on the site of a medieval monastery, the Palace of Pena itself only dates back to the 19thcentury. Commissioned by King Ferdinand II, it was completed in 1854. Ferdinand had married into the Portuguese royal family and was actually related to King Ludwig II who commissioned the similarly fairy tale Neuschwanstein Castle (the one that the Disneyland castle was based on), so apparently the desire for an elaborate castle in the romantic style runs in the family…
The castle is an eclectic mix of colors, textures, and styles. The outside has three main sections: a red section, a yellow section, and a section featuring blue tiles. The design and construction features Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic, and Neo-Renaissance styles making it a feast for the eyes. Only a small section of the inside is open to the public, but the outside is enough on its own. Not only is the building interesting, but it features the same stunning views as the Castle of the Moors, plus the added bonus of being able to see the Castle from a different point of view. Be sure to find all the different tiles here, inlcuding a wall of tiles featuring a knight. Hit the Chapel, the oldest part of the Palace which features an intricate Manueline-Renaissance altar in marble and green.
Once the Palace itself has been thoroughly explored, it’s time to head back down the mountain with a stop at Pena Park. Below the Castle, this park sprawls on the side of the mountain, again full of vibrant vegetation. There’s a farm, greenhouses, a lake, and even the royal family’s chalet. This elaborately decorated house was meant as an escape from the Palace that’s, you know, a 15 minute walk away… Royals, they’re just like us? Based off Alpine chalets, this house has several interesting elements: though from afar it appears to be made of wood, it’s actually made of painted stone, the rooms are brightly decorated, and both the exterior and interior is adorned in cork. The chalet was recently renovated and has only just opened to the public and is certainly worth a walk through Pena Park to see.
After exploring the park, it’s time to head back to Sintra. Walking down the side of the mountain, you’ll get more views and wander through a villa. Just before reaching the bottom, there’s an arts school with a bar and café – stop here for a cheap bite or drink with a magnificent view of the town and surrounding forest.
If you haven’t had enough of palaces and castles, there’s more. Just a short (relatively flat) walk from the center of the town is Quinta da Regailera. This estate is an adult’s playground with a romantic palace, towers, grottoes, lakes, and a unique inverted tower. These inverted towers, or Initiation Wells, are inspired by initiation wells used by the Grand Masons and feature staircases around the edges so you can walk down them. Once at the bottom, you find yourself in the labyrinthine tunnels. There are towers and walls, lakes and caves, and you’ll certainly spend a few hours getting lost throughout the site. The gray palace again is stone that has been painted to look as though it was made of bricks and has Manueline details. The original Manueline style dates from 1490 to 1520 and features intricately carved stone detail. True examples include Belém Tower and Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon. The carved details along windows, doorways, and columns results in a rich look.
There is so much to see in Sintra so don’t be fooled by its small-town status. Even within the small city there’s the municipal building, the Palace of Sintra, and a bustling town full of shops and restaurants. During the day, the small, winding streets are full of tourists, but at night, it’s much quieter and you can enjoy the little town at its best. Within the area of Sintra, there are several more quintas and palaces, while there’s hiking and the beach, too. One could easily spend a week exploring this stunning area that’s normally given a day. Do yourself a favor and do it justice, you won’t be disappointed. It truly is a dream.